Friday, May 12, 2017

Rochelle's Mother

This is one of the stories I read last Sunday, as part of the Spring Writes Literary Festival. A fictional piece about a made-up friend and her made-up mother.

My best friend Rochelle, her mother was an underwear model, and sometimes even a nude model, though she never intended to be either, and she wasn't even aware that she was, until one Saturday morning in the dry cereal aisle of Daitch's Supermarket, when her shopping cart bumped into Sheldon Feingold's cart.

He bowed to her in his Old World gentlemanly way and said "Excuse me, Mrs., I just have to tell you, of all your beautiful bras I like the black lace one the very best, and also, if you don't mind me mentioning it, your" — and here he lifted his two cupped hands to his chest, to indicate her breasts — "they are so lovely, they give me good dreams at night."

Rochelle's mother, who other people called Estelle Kornblum, but not me, almost passed out, right there in the aisle next to the Rice Krispies.

Somehow, in a state of embarrassment and shock, she managed to walk the 5 blocks back to her apartment, where she immediately convened a gathering of her three closest friends for an emergency session of Coffee and Kvetch.

The women found the story appalling. How could it be that Sheldon Feingold — retired tailor; respected congregant at Temple Beth Shalom; a man revered in our building for the ease with which he could remove a splinter, no matter how badly it might be embedded in the heel of a child's foot — was nothing but a no-goodnick. A rotten filthy slobbery sneaky squinty disgusting Peeping Tom.

"Feh on him," said Missy Weiskoff's mother, and she spit three times, but in a very ladylike manner so not one spray of spittle landed anyplace.

Naturally, the conversation turned to the particular quirks and oddities of our large apartment building, with its architectural curves and corners that allowed Mr. Feingold's bedroom window to face directly into Rochelle's mother's bedroom, although the two apartments weren't even on the same floor.

There was a time-honored rule in the building: Never look out your window, unless you're looking down onto the street to make sure your children aren't doing something they shouldn't be doing. Generations had abided by this policy, so how was Rochelle's mother supposed to know that all during that long hot summer, with nighttime temperatures remaining in the upper 80s, her bedroom curtains left open to attract any passing breeze, she had been attracting the unwelcome gaze of old Mr. Feingold.

"Estelle, you're such an innocent," Missy Weiskoff's mother tut-tutted.

"An ignoramus, maybe?" Wendy Leiberman's mother asked, but kindly, so as not to give offense.

My own mother tried to look on the positive side. "Essie," she said, "let's face it, you have the best bosoms of us all, maybe it's time someone was admiring them." Even Rochelle's mother had to admit that she did have nice bosoms.

Mrs. Leiberman thought maybe they should head straight up to Mr. Feingold's apartment and give him a serious what-for. Mrs. Weiskoff thought maybe they should wait and get their husbands involved, to ensure an even more serious what-for.

But in the end, there was no what-for delivered at all. Because they were peace-loving women. And also because it was such a hot day, and something that required any effort was just not going to happen.

You might be asking yourself where Rochelle's daddy stood in all of this. Mr. Kornblum was standing with his feet firmly planted on a tiny square of parched lawn in Tenafly, New Jersey, which is where he moved when he left Rochelle's mother, and where he now lived with his new wife and his new daughters.  Mr. Kornblum was never told about the Feingold business.

Brouhahas come and go, and this one was quickly dropped. In a way. But in another way it was never dropped. The children in the building, especially the girls, were instructed to ignore Mr. Feingold if we happened to see him on the stairs, or out back where we went to leave bags of garbage.

And too bad for you if you got a splinter in your foot and your mother couldn't get it out, not even with a needle she sterilized on the stove, you'd just have to suffer until that splinter worked its way out on its own. Mr. Feingold didn't have a friend left in the building. You could almost feel sorry for him. But nobody did.

The months passed, and before you could say latke it was already Hanukah and Rochelle's mother called her friends together once more for an emergency session of Coffee and Kvetch. But this time, it wasn't to kvetch. She had a big announcement: she met someone. A man. A man with a good head of hair and a respectable job as a librarian.

"I met him on the train," Rochelle's mother said, "on the D train, if you can believe it."

They couldn't believe it. How does a woman get on a train and end up sitting next to a man, a librarian no less, on his way home after visiting his mother on Jerome Avenue, and get to talking, and discover, even above the din of the subway, that he's the one for her? And to top it off, a few short weeks later, they're getting married.

"It doesn't happen like this, not even in the movies," Wendy Leiberman's mother said. My mother said maybe they should start going to different movies. Missy Weiskoff's mother said she could never ride the D train again without wondering if something like a fairytale might happen to her.

Of course the women were happy for Rochelle's mother. She'd been  so lonely after Mr. Leiberman left, and this new man, Harvey Moskowitz was his name, he sounded like a mensch. After all, they met because he'd been visiting his mother.

There was only one problem and it was a big one. Mr. Harvey Moskowitz lived in Astoria, Queens. "We'll never see you no more," Mrs. Weiskoff cried. "Don't say that," said Rochelle's mother, "I'll come back to see you every time Harvey visits his mama, she's just one subway stop away."

But it never happened. She never came back, not once. And I never saw Rochelle again. Astoria, Queens. They might as well have moved to the moon.

By the following summer I was heading off to sleep-away camp with my new best friend, Rhonda Shoemaker, and we were going to be in the same bunk, and we were going to make enough lanyards that we could sell them to our friends when we got back home, and we were both going to be rich.

The night before I left for camp my mother was still packing my duffle bag. A small pile of shorts and T-shirts leaned precariously on my bed, next to my bathing suit, towels, flashlight, and three cans of insect repellent.

Also, six pairs of Carter's white cotton underpants, and my brand new white cotton training bra.

My mother held the bra up in the air like a flag. "Listen to me," she said, in a tone of voice I always listened to because it meant she was about to impart words of true wisdom. "I want you to promise, that for the rest of your life, you will only wear plain white 100% cotton bras. Never black. Never lace."

I stuck my fingers in my ears. This was not the true wisdom I was looking for.

"Listen to what I'm telling you," my mother insisted. "Never black, and never lace. You can't be too careful. Remember Estelle Kornblum. Remember Mr. Feingold."

"Mom," I begged her, "please stop. I'm only eleven."

But my mother wouldn't, or couldn't, stop. "There are Mr. Feingolds everywhere you go," she said, "they come in all shapes and sizes. Don't be fooled. And don't let anybody get fresh with you."

With these comforting words she sent me off to Camp WollyWolly,  in the Catskill wilderness.

By the time Rhonda and I returned we were no longer friends, we didn't have a single lanyard to sell, and I had outgrown my training bra. The next day my mother took me shopping.

As we headed for the Girls' Department in Alexander's Department Store I reached for my mother's hand and gave it a little squeeze.

"I know what to look for," I assured her. "Plain, white, 100% cotton. Never black. Never lace."

Mom squeezed my hand back. I could tell she was relieved.